Actually, I’ve been waiting specifically for this day to finally put the series’ second run to rest on this here blog. Why is that? Well, that’s because tonight, Ricky Gervais will have the opportunity to win one of those ballyhooed Statues Of Emmy in the Outstanding Actor In A Comedy category.
Yeah, and about that.
You can’t find a bigger champion of the comedian’s work than me. People forget how important that initial incarnation of “The Office” truly was in terms of both influence and imagination. Yeah, everything surrounding it has been bastardized since it first debuted in July 2001 – and, for that matter, Gervais himself probably has more people who are “over him,” as the kids say, than he does people who are “into him,” as their hip parents often note – but if there was no UK “Office,” there would be no American “Office,” or Steve Carell, or John Krasinski, or Ed Helms, or Mindy Kaling or “Modern Family” or … the list goes on and on and on and on. Dismiss him all you want, but you can’t deny the guy’s reach.
Yet even with all of that in mind, I can’t help but feel just the tinniest bit squeamish about his nod for his latest show’s first season in the comedy category at tonight’s Grand Ball Of Television. Gervais already takes enough heat for creating “Derek” in the first place (cough, Mr. Hunley, cough) because of how exploitative his performance may be perceived, and this very odd placing … again, in the comedy category … only fuels those critical fires with a tad more kerosene and a whole lot more vigor. I.e., everybody is already mad enough that Louis C.K. never wins this thing anyway. Just imagine what the taste-makers and the A.V. Clubbers and the Twitterverse will be saying if Gervais pulls the upset.
I say this now because it bleeds perfectly into the underlying takeaway from “Derek” season two: It’s just not that good. And instead of my idiotic mind trying to come up with a good way to sum it all up, how about we turn to my colleague over at PopMatters, IndieWire’s Ben Travers …
“In season two,” he wrote, “we know Derek. We know Gervais, too. We’re well aware of his capabilities as a dramatic actor, even on a show with a consistent level of comedy. Though ‘Derek’ still has moments of sweetness, much of the romance from its initial go-round has vanished, replaced by crude jokes better suited for a light sprinkling – as they were in season one – than blanket coverage.”
Indeed, the shine from that first run has warn itself thin. That’s not to say it’s lost forever; it’s just to say that “Derek” season two had problems. A lot of problems, in fact. Karl Pilkington’s Dougie is gone and gone in a hurry as the season’s first episode begins. His replacement, Colin Hoult’s Geoff, is an annoying knockoff that doesn’t have the humor or the heart his predecessor so easily displayed so often. David Earl’s Kev is then forced to step up into more of a permanent sidekick role and the results are so one-note, you can’t help but cringe each time another sex joke creeps from that mustache. Hannah wants a baby, a puppy becomes the focus of an episode, Derek’s dad moves into the home, and … well, and I’ll give you three guesses on how any of those story arcs turn out.
Here’s a hint: The answer is not “well.”
Such is why it’s so hard to buy into this notion that “Derek” is a comedy in the first place. You could have made the Drama Argument throughout most of season one, but with this second run, it becomes so blatantly obvious that most of these things shouldn’t be played for laughs that not only do you not laugh, but you also become disappointed when you can’t cry, either. I mean, you want to because you know you should, but the unevenness that runs too constantly through this set of episodes overshadows the poignant moments just enough to make them feel somewhat watered down.
You know the dog is going to have to be put down. You know Derek’s dad isn’t walking out of that home alive. You know Hannah’s going to lose her baby.
But whereas you could see similar moments coming in season one and embrace them for what they were (again: the first and last episodes continue to make me well up each time I watch them, even today), the season two instances feel a little too lazy and a little too contrived. At this point, you almost would have preferred to see Derek’s dad live through another season, if only to fully realize the breadth of their relationship, both good and bad. Let Hannah keep her baby and let’s see how she works as a co-parent with Tom. Sober up Kev and give him the job that Dougie vacated. Shoot. Give the dog a voice, let him live, and allow the series to become a British version of “Mr. Ed” with a dog and a Derek. I don’t care what you do. Just mix it up a little.
Make us feel.
So, how does it get better? That’s a hard question to answer. All irrational Pilkington love aside, there’s no denying that Dougie brought a very essential levity to the narrative. He was no-nonsense, but he had a heart. He wasn’t annoyingly critical or sarcastic, but he was always one of the smartest people in the room, and even if he was disgusted by everything that was going on around him, he lived to represent the purest examples of acceptance far more than any other character in that series ever did or ever will. When he talked about how lucky Derek was to have such a flowery world view, you bought into everything he would say. Why? Because he made you reconsider your own outlook on all of life’s abstract principles. Like kindness. Or happiness. Or growth. He was an authority, a level head that, in a weird way, humanized a drama predicated specifically on exposing the many different emotionally charged aspects of humanism. He was a rock in a bad wig.
Kev can’t do that. Hard as they try with him, season two of “Derek” proved, if nothing else, that the sex jokes and the drinking and the grossness that the character so often embodies works best in only small doses. His best moments came when he was trying to land a job or he was spending time constructing statues to help ease the pain for his roommate, who earlier in an episode suffered a heart-wrenching loss. It’s OK to have absurdity for absurd’s sake, but when that absurdity is so one-note, it becomes real tiresome real quick. He played the perfect third-fiddle to Dougie and Derek, but if they want him to step into the second chair, they need to add a few layers to make him worth caring about.
And at the end of the day, that’s probably a good microcosm of what’s wrong with the series right now: We need more interesting pieces of a puzzle we as viewers already put together. If Gervais or the writers behind “Derek” want to encourage us to pull this thing out of the closet once a year, they need to make the use of our brainpower more worthwhile (and no, that quick decision to try and incorporate as much real life social media as they could into the first few episodes didn’t particularly do much for those of us who had to catch up with the season on Netflix. I’ve called Gervais brilliant a bunch of times in my life; that move was borderline pathetic. #dontmakederektweet). You can’t just throw a bunch of sad stories in front of us and expect to see the sales in Kleenex go through the roof. You need to find connection, you need to find some sort of way to make all the atrocities and tragedies feel like they matter.
“Derek” did a great job at creating those very things in its first run last year. With season two behind us and the possibility of a third still looming (it will be back in some form, in some way, Gervais has said), it might be time to revisit the storytelling drawing board for everyone involved with the series. Because even if Mr. Noakes somehow winds up with a gold statue by the time we all go to bed tonight, there’s a whole lot of work left to do in order for him to justify that accomplishment, especially in the comedy category.
Kindness might still be magic, yes. But as we so disappointingly found within the fabric of “Derek’s” second season, magic doesn’t always translate into great TV. Comedic. Or dramatic.